China names its calendar in a 12-year zodiac cycle, each after a living thing. Therefore, 2017 was the Year of the Rooster, or Cock as we know it in India, and 2018 will be that of the Dog. Alas, the Chinese eat most of the things after which the years are named. Indians, at least those in government and others of the elite, do not eat animal flesh. And we count our years in numerals, Arabic numbers. But if one were to name 2017, it would be the Year of the Cow. The Killer Cow.
It caused death without being killed. Sometimes people were lynched on the mere suspicion they had had beef. And sometimes because they were carrying buffalos but could well have carried cows which could then have been smuggled out to be butchered. The statisticians are still out and counting, but it is clear even to the blind that almost 80 percent of those brutally murdered were Muslim, mostly men in their twenties and thirties. The rest were Dalits.
The names do not matter. Nor, really, do the numbers. This autumn, this reporter travelled, with Harsh Mander, in the Karawan-e Mohabbat through the broad swath of northern India where most of these killings took place. The tears were waiting to be shed; the sobs audible before our entry into a small hamlet. The faces of the widows, the frightened children, the angry surviving brothers, the old helpless parents merged into each other into a quilt of fear, much like the pall of pollution that lay over the countryside. "If you smuggle cows, you will be killed", intoned Mr. Gyan Dev Ahuja, BJP MLA, speaking on the mob beating of cow transporter Zakir Khan in Rajasthan. Our bus was stoned by protectors of the cow.
By the time the Year of the Cow ended in the Season of Christmas, the violence was against Christian Carollers, pastors, priests, young men and new believers in Jesus. The Home Minister of the country had to issue an advisory for the violence to abate. Christmas was under the show of police guards in churches protected by barbed wire on the boundary walls, and closed circuit TV covering the Altar and the entrance. This, indeed, is now Standard Operating Procedure.
In between, the nation heard the prime minister accuse the Archbishop of Gandhinagar of hatching a conspiracy on behalf of the Pope, and unsaid, on behalf of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi of the Congress, to unseat his government in the elections then underway in the State. The Bishop had written a letter to his flock they should vote wisely, avoiding groups that strutted around prancing their nationalism. Perhaps this was a mild allegation, for later in the month, the Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, accused his predecessor, the soft-spoken Dr Manmohan Singh and the retired two term Vice President of India, Syed Hamid Ansari, of conspiring with Pakistan not merely to unseat the incumbent government in new Delhi, but, unspoken again, to take out a contract to assassinate the man himself.
Lunacy of a very high order rode high on a variety of Islamophobia – with a dollop of poison against the Pope and clergy in general – through much of 2017. It was a fraught situation for ordinary, peace-loving people professing the many faiths that flourish in India. But it was boom time for the 30 per cent or so of the followers of Mr Modi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the hydra of the Sangh Parivar that saw its membership increase as never before as it inched close to its centenary in 2025. The Sangh and Mr Modi clearly hope they will help each other win the general elections in 2019 almost as an aside, on way to a grand centenary celebration.
And well they might, despite huge layoffs in the IT sector, which engine the spectacular economic growth this century, the agrarian crisis, the blow to the pastoral economy which crashed with the advent of a law banning trading in cattle destined for the table, the continuing fallout of the demonetisation of R 1,000 and 500 notes in 2016, and the half thought out Goods and Services Tax, which the new president of the rival Congress party spelled out as the “Gabbar Singh Tax”, after the fierce villain of the iconic chapatti western film Sholay. Gabbar Singh, a gun-toting dacoit shot as many of his own faithful as he did innocent villagers, but his trademark were his stained teeth and his snarl. Cinema is yet to find the science to convey smells, but viewers could all but feel the stench of his breath.
It would be bizarre, if it were not so tragic, impacting a population of a billion and a quarter. The country seems perpetually teetering on the brink of an armed conflict with neighbours Pakistan or China, fuelled by the same set of religious nationalists who wanted national tempers to be perpetually on the boil. A captive media – the battered and tame media of the 1975 Emergency seemed a rampant lion in comparison – waited hand and foot on the ruling party, and competed in taking selfies with the Prime Minister.
Through this surreal space-time continuum, a lodestar had been the Supreme Court and the Constitution of India that it interprets as law. By year end, both were under serious threat. The Supreme Court covered itself with glory upholding the people’s right to human dignity, exemplified in their right to privacy, but the halo was not so shining by year end after it broadly went along with the government on several issues that made marginalised communities, specially religious minorities, apprehensive of the manner in which the State was inching closer to the practice if not the concept, of the Hindu Rashtra that is the target of the Sangh Parivar, the single parent of the ruling party. The final court verdict on the Ram temple issue will decide the course of the next ten years, it is clear. The Supreme Court, locked in a mortal combat with the government to ensure its autonomy through its self-selection of the higher judiciary, is yet to give a stirring signal to the people that it will hold its own, and not succumb. The State High Courts take their cue from the Apex court
Close to New Year 2017, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement had held that an appeal for votes during elections on the basis of religion, caste, race, community or language, even that of the electorate, would amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ and call for disqualification of the candidate in any election. As the year ended, leaders of the government were asking leaders of the Opposition to declare if they worshipped Lord Rama or not. The court was silent.
Amending the Constitution, in so many words, is not on the party agenda, but it remains the core of the belief of the BJP and the Sangh that the Statutes written under the chairmanship of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and the guidance of the first prime minister, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, are of alien descent and cannot guide the fortunes of a nation that is of divine origin in its culture and traditions.
Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first BJP prime minister to hold office, tried hard to see if he could get the Constitution at least reviewed, if not changed. He failed.
Mr Modi, forever trying to improve on Mr Vajpayee, is not giving up. His ministers make no bones of the party’s objective. "Seculars do not know what their blood is. Seculars don't have any parentage. We will amend the constitution," said Mr. Anant Kumar Hegde, Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in Mr Modi’s government. He is yet to be chastised, much less sacked.
Not that Mr Modi wants to sack people who so succinctly spell out the issues he is ideologically loyal to since he was a young cadre in the RSS, and last as chief minister of Gujarat which under his rule saw a terrible massacre of Muslims in 2002.
Perhaps, one would say, he has chosen this year with cold intent, for some of the highest posts in the country make it abundantly clear to anyone that the government will brook no interference in its march to the golden future it has promised its loyalists.
The posts of the President and Vice President of India fell vacant this year. The last President, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, was a Congressman, though in his last three years, he tried his best not to come in the way of Mr Modi’s desires. The last Vice President was Mr Hamid Ansari, a former diplomat and scholar, who served two terms with distinction and irritated Mr Modi no end with his firm articulation of secularism.
Mr Modi’s choice for the new President was Mr Ram Nath Kovind, a senior lawyer and then governor of Bihar. It helped that Mr Kovind was also a Dalit and had grown up in utter poverty, an image that Mr Modi also conjures up for himself. Mr Kovind will perhaps be a good president in the five years that are his in Rashtrapati Bhawan, but 2017 was the first year in a long, long time when Christmas Carols were not sung in the President’s house, and a token Christmas party not thrown for the community in the national capital. Rashtrapati Bhawan is now secular, non-religious, an officer explained to curious newspersons. No one believed the officer. In the forgotten past of when he was the official spokesman of the BJP, Mr Kovind had also said a few things about Christianity as an alien religion with no place in India.
The new vice president is a former Union Minister, Mr Venkaiah Naidu. In his old avatar, he was the one to say with other ministers that the BJP wanted to bring a national law against religious conversions. The word conversion now all but finally means versions to Christianity. Much like the suspicion of carrying beef can get a Muslim beaten up, if not killed, the rumour of carrying out a conversion can send priest or pastor or carol singer to the hospital, or the jail, or both. No Caroller has been killed, it must be recorded.
(Published on 01th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 01)